By Dr. Veronika Kretschmer | Fraunhofer IML – The employee-friendly design of Industry 4.0 systems is becoming more and more important for the success of digitisation (not only) in logistics. Currently, making improvements to the effectiveness and efficiency of human-technology systems is particularly in focus for so-called cognitive ergonomics. Its theoretical foundations are based on knowledge originating in psychology and ergonomics.

When people think of ergonomics today, most of them still think of things like back-friendly office chairs. In the context of optimising workplaces by improving work equipment and the working environment – whether it is at a desk or in a driver’s cab, in an office or on an assembly line – that is just one aspect of the work humans do: physical ergonomics. But, because of the increase in digitisation, yet another subject is now in focus: cognitive ergonomics.

Scientists are looking into how people’s »informational environment« can be designed in a better way, i.e. how humans can best cooperate or interact with technical systems. This is based on the awareness that employee-friendly human-technology-systems lead to better performance, more satisfaction and – even more important – better health for employees.

Back in the 1980s, initial research was already being carried out into this area and it is now gaining importance again with its relevance for Industry 4.0 and technological progress. As logistical systems – and intralogistics systems in particular– are some of the pioneers when it comes to implementing Industry 4.0, logistics is proving to be a consistent driving force behind research into cognitive ergonomics.

The problems of »information work«

Connecting up the virtual and physical worlds facilitates new forms of cooperation between humans and systems and also integrates intelligent assistance systems in the work processes. Virtual reality, for example, is used for training and planning purposes, augmented reality supports maintenance projects. What at first glance sounds like having more fun at work, however, often leads to more complex work processes coupled with increasing information and communication requirements. Employees are having to face new or changing workloads to an even greater extent than when the automation of machines impacted on companies in the 1970s or when computers found their way into offices in the 1980s. The focus of cognitive ergonomics is on the psychological side of work whereas physical ergonomics continues to address the prevention of physical stress and strain.

The more information people are faced with, the more responsibility they have to take on and the more the pressure increases.

It is already obvious today that the flood of information, the redundancy and multitude of irrelevant information we face is causing big problems for employees in information-intensive disciplines. People must deal with complex information-intensive tasks, fulfil them accurately and exactly. However, the more information people are faced with, the more responsibility they have to take on. So the pressure rises – especially in light of constantly tighter timeframes. This imbalance or overload then results in diminished concentration, more illness and more mistakes.

Not everyone reacts in the same way to an information-intensive work environment. What is most important for this is a person’s technical background, their attitude towards technology and readiness to deal with new technologies. How do people value technological progress, which expectations do they connect with new technologies? Do they have the impression that new technology helps them or that it hinders them, that they are control it or that it controls them? These are exactly the factors that are the subject of investigations into cognitive ergonomics.

So, back to the couch after all?

Improving effectiveness and efficiency

The central research objective for cognitive ergonomics is to achieve »stress-optimized design« as the basis for Industry 4.0 systems for humans. People will continue to be an indispensable part of Social Networked Industry that furthers the development of Industry 4.0 based on the example of social networks. Furthermore, they will be subject to constant technological changes that will have a direct and indirect impact on the way we work and on the quality of work.

By means of cognitive ergonomics human performance can be optimised in a way that improves the efficiency of the human-technology system. In this way, logistics can only benefit from psychology and its perceptions, knowledge and methods based on human experience and behaviour – and without having to lie on the couch at all.

October 2017

About the author

Dr. phil. Dipl.-Psych. Veronika Kretschmer is a scientific employee at Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML. She carries out her research into cognitive ergonomics in the context of both the National Centre of Excellence for Logistics and IT and the Innovation Lab.